Friendships in academia are not just good for your mental health, but they can help your career

This is a guest post by Dr Elise Gornish from University of Arizona. Thanks Elise for writing about a valuable kind of work relationship we often take for granted.

Several years ago, as a new faculty member, I suggested to my department that we organize a holiday party for students, faculty and staff as a nice opportunity to interact with one another while enjoying some baked goods and nostalgia winter music. I distinctly remember one of the senior faculty members scoff at the suggestion saying, ‘I have real friends outside of the department, why do I need to act like I have any friends inside the department?’ I was astonished that someone might consider having friends within your department specifically and perhaps, in academic in general, as a bad or unnecessary thing.

In the past few months, likely encouraged by the isolation impressed on many of us due to COVID-19, there have been an avalanche of articles that document the benefit of friendships for mental health in the academe. However, something that is much less discussed (and what constantly surprises me) about these friendships is how they can contribute in very real ways to the development of an academic career. Below are just three critical examples from my own experience (warning, n=1) that highlight this relationship.

  1. Recently, I have been awarded several early career awards from some of the most important scientific organizations in my field. In almost all cases, it was close friends who nominated me for these awards. The nomination process for most of these awards are long and tedious: the identification, contacting and gentle badgering of recommendation letter writers, the collection and synthesis of someone else’s past academic history into a compelling (and often long) narrative about their capacity as an award candidate, and the tedious editing of multiple documents into required formats. Certainly, anyone can put your name forward for high profile awards, but friends are more likely to invest the time needed to develop a truly competitive nomination (each major award nomination can cumulatively require several days of work), particularly at the expense of their own productivity.
  2. I was privileged in graduate school to meet and become extremely close with some of my favorite people on the planet. And, many of these friends currently conduct research outside of my field. The inevitable discussions about our work has led to some very deep interdisciplinary collaborations that have produced novel developments in science in general, as well as actual products, such as peer reviewed publications, and funded proposals. Undoubtably, you don’t need to be friends with your collaborators before, during or after a project. However, in the absence of informal communication with friends outside of your field, its less likely that you would read a paper or attend a talk describing work in another discipline that might be relevant to your work in some way. Friendships can help foster really interesting cross disciplinary work that attracts attention. Some of my highest cited papers and largest grants are based on interdisciplinary work that occurred with friends.
  3. Finally, friends are critical sounding boards for challenges associated with academia. Lots of weird things can happen within (and, of course, external to) the university system, and individuals (perhaps, particularly early career individuals) might reach out to their networks on guidance for how to respond to this weirdness. Mentors can provide clarity and sound advice on how to respond to a challenging situation based on their own experience. However, these reasonable recommendations might not be helpful in practice based on more private considerations. For example, shyness or a previous negative experience might leave someone unable to act on suggested courses of action.  Friends are more likely than formal mentors or esteemed collaborators to be aware of these thoughts and feelings and therefore can provide more relevant advice that is considerate of personality and experience. One of my closest friends (and long time collaborator) is very aware of my propensity to rapidly respond to perceived slights in very acrid ways. She often suggests that I distance myself from the situation (almost always good advice) and consider if I am overcomplicating the things (I usually am). My friend has helped me to not explode certain relationships with combative (and sometimes thoughtless) responses that could ultimately harm my career in the future.

Perhaps universities and departments can take a more active role to help cultivate friendships among their members. There are lots of ways that this could happen. Colleges could organize formal and informal happy hours or lunches for faculty to facilitate networking. Tickets to on-campus events such as sports events and exhibits can be provided at a much lower cost to new faculty to create opportunities for meeting new people. Faculty should also be made aware of interesting off campus events through emails or flyers to enhance community among faculty in general. Supplementing the more common practices of coffee dates among faculty and departmental holiday parties with these opportunities are only one good avenue to consider. Embracing friendships where we work with the acknowledgment that they can nurture our minds and our CVs is another good step. We can do this, and we can do it together.

© Elise Gornish 2020

3 thoughts on “Friendships in academia are not just good for your mental health, but they can help your career

  1. Kelly Papapavlou November 11, 2020 / 7:09 PM

    Ι very much agree with this. Plus, there is another practical aspect, complementary to 3 above: in challenging technical and methodological situations such as stuck software, incomprehensible statistics, taxonomic impediments and broken laboratory equipment, knowledgeable friends are expected to provide a helping hand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elise Gornish November 12, 2020 / 3:59 AM

      Great point! Thanks for the idea!


  2. AppophiaM November 11, 2020 / 7:28 PM

    Wondering if it’s possible to foster these kind of friendships between professors and students. Often it seems that one is the learner and the other the tutor, and it’s easier for learners to be friends, tutors to be friends but harder to establish a tutor/learner friendship


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